A shilling life may give you all the facts, but sinking beneath The House of Gucci’s blizzard of bit-part players and circumstantial detail, one starts to wish it wouldn’t give you quite so many. Sara Gay Forden’s breathless gallop through the rise and fall of the Gucci family may be written almost entirely in Hellospeak™, but the Gucci story provides a textbook illustration of Stocks’s Three Dont’s of the Luxury Goods Trade, namely:
1. Don’t have children
2. Don’t let the brand out of your sight for a single second, and
3. Don’t think you can retain control for ever.
The Guccis, needless to say, failed to observe the Three Ds, and ultimately lost their control, their marbles and, in one case, their life as a result.
Founded by Guccio Gucci in 1923 after a mysterious but useful period spent observing deluxe luggage in the lifts of the Savoy, the family firm spent its first few decades steaming ahead in a fairly sensible fashion, establishing itself firmly in Italy before making its first tentative moves into the American market. But (Don’t No 1) Guccio begat Ugo, Grimalda, Enzo, Aldo, Vasco and Rodolfo, Aldo begat Giorgio, Paolo and Roberto, and Rodolfo begat Maurizio, to name but a few – all of whom had to be given their share (apart from Grimalda, who being a mere woman wasn’t given any, and the feckless Ugo, who made up for it by becoming a Fascist).
All went relatively well while Guccio was alive and ruling the roost with a no-doubt exquisitely tailored leather-gloved fist. But like most families – and especially those warped by the destabilising influence of wealth – resentments were soon simmering away like an unwatched potboiler (Don’t No 2). As the years went on and the stakes grew higher, these resentments finally bubbled over into the most destructive boardroom meltdown of the 1980s, which pitted brother against brother and fathers against sons. Ironically it was Maurizio, the most forward-thinking and pragmatic of all the Gucci clan who, after saving the brand by bringing in Middle Eastern investment and American talent, lost, in a final tragic act, both the company and his life, shot on the instructions of his wife (Don’t No 3).
It’s a rip-roaring tale, lacking only indiscriminate poisonings and the odd defenestration to make it worthy of the Borgias, and Forden – former Milan correspondent to Women’s Wear Daily – has evidently enjoyed rolling up her Armani sleeves and getting down and dirty with the frequently lip-smacking facts. Forden is clearly a subscriber to Vanity Fair’s First Law of American Journalism (‘More is More’), and her research – including 100 interviews and enough reading to prop up a PhD thesis on the War in the Pacific – is exhaustive, not to say exhausting, since its effect is to overload almost every sentence with frequently unnecessary detail. To take just a single example: ‘Not only had [Maurizio] survived all the legal attacks from his relatives, now two and a half years after he had been forced to flee Milan on his red Kawasaki, he had cleared his name.’ In case you’re wondering, the model was a GPZ – needless to say, Forden drops that in a few pages earlier. After a while it’s like being suffocated with lard, but presumably all the underpinnings are intended to function, as much as anything else, as a large, flashing warning sign to other would-be biographers of the Gucci saga, bearing the words BACK OFF, BABY – DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. Sadly for this book, the shelves of remainder bookshops are stacked five deep already in shilling lives, which illustrate the suprisingly optimistic principle that, in biography if not in market economics, the good will tend, over time, to drive out the merely adequate.
Odd though it sounds to say this about a book on fashion, but style isn’t everything – luckily, in this case, as the Gucci story is still far from over. It’s a tale, as Forden doubtless says somewhere, of turning tragedy into triumph, and revolves around three Americans who joined the company at its lowest ebb: Dawn Mello, Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole. Mello was president of Bergdorf Goodman, and had turned an ailing department store into Manhattan’s hottest property. Ford, however famous he may be now, was then an unemployed designer touting his portfolio around Europe on the coat-tails of his boyfriend Richard Buckley, a style journalist who had recently had cancer and now wanted to escape the stress of a New York working life. Domenico De Sole was an Italian-born lawyer who began working for the Guccis in the early 1980s; while the family wars raged around him he stood quietly by, slowly rising to the top, where he now remains, as Gucci’s CEO. Mello brought marketing acumen, extensive American contacts and a positive vision; Ford, after a shaky start, developed a fantastically confident and up-to-the-minute look for the clothes; and De Sole introduced the highest American standards of business backed by his own huge ambition.
None of this would have happened without Investcorp, the investment company that Maurizio Gucci had first appealed to for backing during his ill-fated attempt to revitalise the family firm. Backed by oil-rich investors in the Gulf states, Investcorp established its name with its sale of Tiffany, which it had purchased in 1984 from Avon for £135 million. When it took the famous New York jeweller public three years later, Tiffany’s market price represented a return to Investcorp’s backers of 174 per cent a year. Forden quotes Investcorp’s chief financial officer as saying, ‘We felt you couldn’t sell jewellery as though it were cosmetics.’ Maurizio must have felt he was in good hands, but his family’s infighting and his own extravagance nearly brought Investcorp to its knees before it was able, like a cuckoo in a very badly run nest, finally able to oust the Guccis altogether. Maurizio raged that ‘I’m not going to surrender this company to the Arabs. I’ve lost my fortune, I’ve lost my face, I’ve lost my respect in the business and I am going to take this ship down with me.’ The fact that almost all his troubles were of his own making hardly endeared him to Investcorp, especially when he brought a $160 million libel suit against them, and the $120 million they finally paid him for his stake in September 1993 must have seemed a price well worth paying.
Investcorp took Gucci public in two offerings, the first in October 1995 and the second in April 1996, netting $2.1 billion. It had taken ten years to turn the company round, but the return was so spectacular – thanks to a combination of proper management and Tom Ford’s determination to ‘push Gucci as far as I could’ – that it provided a model for other privately held fashion companies such as Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. That might be the triumphant end of the story but for the Achilles heel of all public companies: while their financial transparency is generally good for business and gives them access to a far greater pool of capital, anyone who wants to can buy their shares, and a hostile takeover becomes an ever-present threat. And in the luxury goods business, few have a more fearsome reputation for hostile bids than LVMH, the French-based conglomerate run by Bernard Arnault which owns, among many others, Givenchy, Dior, Louis Vuitton and the rapidly expanding perfume chain Sephora. In January 1999, LVMH started acquiring Gucci stock, and despite protestations to the contrary, few at Gucci believed Arnault’s interest to be entirely disinterested. A low-intensity battle continues to be waged in the Dutch courts (Gucci is incorporated in the Netherlands), but safety seems to have been achieved by Gucci’s friendly alliance with Arnault’s arch-rival, François Pinault, whose company, Pinault Printemps Redoute, has also brought Tom Ford the prize of Yves Saint Laurent. The fashion world now waits to see if Ford can do it again.